April 24, 2024

The Original Cliffhanger

A cliffhanger is a popular plot device, to build excitement about the next episode in a series. They first appear in a thousand-year old book of folk tales.

'One Thousand and One Nights'; contemporary edition.

One Thousand and One Nights’ is one of history’s most famous books.

A collection of Arabic folk tales, in reality, it is less of a book and more of a concept. The collected stories have been sourced from as far afield as India, Morocco, Spain, Greece and Arabia, and the contents of the book wary widely across these different locations.

Hundreds of different, usually uncredited, authors have contributed material, in a dozen different languages, further complicated as the book has been translated numerous times. Even the book's title comes in an endless series of varieties.

Trying to piece together a history of ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ is like trying to solve a literary detective story.

Handwritten fragment from 9th century edition

The book first appears in Syria.

A handful of handwritten pages survive, dating from the mid ninth century, under the title of ‘The Tale of the Thousand Nights’.

A century later, it appears in Iraq, where it is mentioned in the writings of Al-Masʿūdī, a prominent local scholar. This version is called ‘The Thousand Tales’.

By the twelfth century it has made its way to Egypt, where a receipt from a bookseller records the sale of a copy of ‘The Thousand and One Nights’.

In an era where travel was difficult, the book was able to move widely, and quickly, most likely carried from place to place by merchants utilising the Middle East’s long established trade routes.

The oldest intact copy of the book; 14th century

The oldest copy that is largely intact dates from the 14th century, also from Syria.

And this copy shows the book's innovative structure, which was copied from edition to edition, even as the rest of the content varied.

It is where literature gets the ideas both of framing devices, and cliffhangers.


‘One Thousand and One Nights’ is the story of Shahryar, an ancient king.

In the framing story, that kicks off the action, he discovers his wife has been unfaithful to him, and has her executed. In an act of completely deranged revenge, he then seeks retribution against all woman-kind, by repeating this act; Shahryār takes a new bride each day, and then has her executed the following morning, before she can betray him.

Outraged by the king’s behaviour, the Vizier’s daughter, Scheherazade, determines to stop him. She agrees to become his next wife, but to put a halt to his murderous rampage, comes up with an ingenious scheme.

Every night she tells the king a new story, but halts the re-telling at a crucial moment, feigning tiredness.

Shahryār, intrigued, then stays her execution, so he can hear the conclusion of the tale. This story-telling cycle then repeats itself, night after night, allowing authors across the middle ages to include their own favourite local folk tales, as stories that Scheherazade can tell.

Antoine Galland's translation

The book’s popularity, influence and circulation continued to grow, from one century to the next. Countless versions were produced, featuring a rotating selection of stories, right across the Middle East and Asia.

In 1704, Antoine Galland, a French scholar and archaeologist, brought ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ to the West, when he translated it into French.

This 12 volume set proved enormously popular, and was widely read across Europe. Intriguingly, some of the best known tales from the book – including ‘Aladdin’, ‘Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves’, and ‘Sinbad the Sailor’ – all appear in Galland’s edition for the first time.

Aladdin; invented by a Frenchman?

None of these famous stories is known from any preceding Arabic version, and some mystery surrounds their sudden appearance.

Galland, who had travelled widely through the Middle East on scientific expeditions, claimed to have heard the new stories from a monk he met in Aleppo, in Syria, who he referred to as  ‘Hanna Diab’. But no evidence of Diab’s existence is known to history.

It is possible that Galland, an aficionado of Arabic culture, may have simply made the stories up himself.

Charles Dickens

But while ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ provides the concept of the cliffhanger, the actual term is much more recent.

In the 19th century, popular authors of literary fiction often used to serialise their work; publishing novel length stories a chapter at a time. This provided a steadier source of income, and also built interest in the story, from one instalment to the next.

The most popular author of this period was Charles Dickens, who frequently serialised his novels. Dickens was so astute at creating tension, at leaving his audience hanging at the end of each instalment, that a mild frenzy would develop as each new chapter appeared.

There are stories, possibly true, of Dickens’ fans besieging trains that they knew were delivering the long awaited next part of the story.

A literal cliffhanger

But it was one of Dickens’ contemporaries, that inadvertently coined the term cliffhanger.

Thomas Hardy, as famous as Dickens if not quite as popular, was the man behind such classic novels as ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’, ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’, and ‘Jude the Obscure.’

One of his earlier books was ‘A Pair of Blue Eyes’; a simple romantic drama set around a love triangle, which was serialised in ‘Tinsley’s’ magazine across 1872-73. At the end of one instalment, Hardy left one of his main characters, Henry Knight, perilously hanging from a cliff.

The next instalment of the novel was much-anticipated, and the term ‘cliffhanger’ was coined in the press, to describe the building excitement.

The Perils of Pauline; a cliffhanger from classic Hollywood

The word subsequently caught on to describe any situation where the outcome was uncertain, and the audience had to wait for a resolution.

It became even more established when it was applied to the short films and serial movies of early Hollywood; these films often adopted a classic cliffhanger ending, at the end of each episode, or before an intermission, to get the audience to come back, after the break.



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